GOLDEN OLDIE: The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Review published on June 10, 2018.

This is, for me, the masterpiece of Hughes’ crime writing career and not the better known but less nuanced In A Lonely Place (1947). Like a lot of people, I became aware of Dorothy B. Hughes’ work through the Hollywood noir classic of that novel, made in 1950 and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. In A Lonely Place was ground-breaking hard-boiled fiction and the central plot is much copied. The film is often seen as softening the novel but it is open to another interpretation. I could argue that the alternative film ending elevates the story, its intent making it more relevant today. Both tell the story of the murder of a young woman. The man in the frame for the crime, he has no alibi, begins to arouse the suspicions of the people around him. In the novel he is a violent sociopath, a misogynist, a killer. In the film that man falls for a neighbour and she sticks by him but he has uncontrollable fits of temper and blackouts; is he capable of murder? No, he isn’t the killer, but by the time he is cleared the relationship has bitten the dust. I think it one of the earliest representations of what we now recognised as PTSD anywhere. The hero is never the same after he returns from the war, the effects last, he can’t cope with the peace. Innocent in the film, a killer in the novel.

So, what’s so good about The Expendable Man? It isn’t just my opinion, in a recent article for the Guardian Review, crime authors were asked to pick the one crime novel that they would recommend to everyone, the one that inspired them to write. Sara Paretsky chose this novel, The Expendable Man, as her favourite citing its “barren landscape, spare writing and sense of menace”.

Menace is right because from the first page we sense the disquiet of the main protagonist, Hugh Densmore, a random good act is about to turn his life upside down. We know this from the way he is thinking, from the storytelling, but we don’t know what is going to happen. He gives a young girl a lift, we begin to imagine where that can lead. Hughes doesn’t tell us yet, she builds the tension and the anticipation. A couple of landmines are laid but the explosion still shocks. Incidentally, this was written in 1963. “Even the sky at this moment was sand, a reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.” The landscape is vast, open but arid, hot, bland, all consuming, somehow claustrophobic.

Hugh Densmore hits the road in his white Cadillac, as he leaves Indio behind he feels good, the sun, the air, the open road, for brief moment he’s relaxed, it doesn’t last. Teenagers buzzing past him in a hot-rod spoil his mood, he starts to get wound up, anxious, intimidated. He pulls into a drive through diner, the kids follow, they’re rowdy, but he has to eat if he’s going to drive all the way to Phoenix tonight. Eventually he’s on his way again, out of nowhere he sees a young girl on the side of the road. He can’t leave her can he?

“He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before the newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind.”

Hugh picks her up, He’s pretty sure that she is lying to him from that moment on. Iris Croom says she’s 18, but maybe she’s 15 or even 14, her name and where she’s going, her aunt’s house, just don’t make sense. Hugh is worried about having this young girl in his car, why was she hiking and what do her parents think they are doing? Iris has no money and scant possessions. A lawman could draw the wrong conclusion here. So he decides to break the journey in Blythe, get her to the bus depot, get her a ticket and forget about her. The problem is when he leaves his hotel the next morning she is still waiting for a lift. To avoid a scene he’s forced to take her Phoenix. Again he drops her at the depot finding her aunt. Finally Hugh heads for his family home, everyone is getting ready for his niece’s wedding, he’s booked into The Palms Hotel. The next day Iris turns up again, she’s been looking for him. She wants his help, she’s in trouble, he’s a doctor and her boyfriend is married with two kids. Hugh is furious, he throws her out. Its back to the family and the wedding and Ellen, the beautiful girl he has a crush on. The following day he sees the headline in the paper about the girl found dead in the canal. He knows a world of trouble is coming his way.

If you’re thinking of reading the novel avoid this paragraph which contains plot spoilers. Detectives Dingle and Venner want to talk to him. They ask about 15-year-old Bonnie Lee Crumb, he denies knowing her but admits to giving a girl called Iris, obviously the same girl, a lift into town. This is where the story turns, Hugh isn’t just worried about taking a minor across state lines (scary enough), but he is black, the girl white. Now the nervousness at the diner, the fear of being caught with the girl in the car (a white Cadillac) make even more sense. No wonder he was scared, no wonder he wanted to get her on the bus. The autopsy results are not in yet but it’s clear she was murdered in a botched backstreet abortion. He’s a doctor and two and two are going to make five. The Scottsdale Marshall, Hackberry, calls him in, they search his room and car. The Marshall says he’ll be fair but there are others just waiting to take down a black doctor. Ellen offers her support and suggests he gets white lawyer. Did the man abusing Iris, her “boyfriend” set him up? In the end, there is only one way to get out of this, find the killer himself.

The Expendable Man is full of suspense and boiling tension and as topical today as it was at the time (the civil rights movement was ramping up). Claustrophobic and seething with bad intent. Hugh and Ellen are very real characters caught up in a maelstrom. Cleverly structured, this tale unfolds rapidly, layers intertwine, and the excitement never lets up. Hughes explores the themes of racism and everyday attitudes in a country still divided on racial lines. Hughes also included a kicker on that at the end about Ellen that forces the reader to face a different aspect of that divided society again. As a critic of the art, Hughes has noir/hard-boiled in her soul. A contemporary of Hammett and Chandler, she is worthy of mention in the same breath.

There is an interesting afterword by Dominic Power that puts a context on Hughes’ work and this novel. Dorothy B. Hughes, Dorothy Belle Flanagan, was born on August 10th 1904 in Kansas City. She was a writer of noir/hard-boiled fiction and a literary critic. Of her fourteen thrillers, three were filmed, In a Lonely Place, The Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse (remade as The Hanged Man). The Expendable Man was her last novel, in 1963, she wrote a biography of Earl Stanley Gardner after that. Though not prolific, her work stands with the best of the hard-boiled genre.

Full credit to Persephone Books for republishing and reprinting this novel in a beautifully bound edition.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes
Persephone Books Ltd 9781903155585 pbk Sep 2006

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